Ringed by a red wall on the southeastern corner of Suzhou Jie (off the 3rd Ring Rd), the tranquil, little-visited Ming dynasty Wànshòu Temple, or Longevity Temple, was originally consecrated for the storage of Buddhist texts. Its name echoes the Summer Palace’s Longevity Hill (Wànshòu Shān), and the imperial entourage would stop here to quaff tea en route to and from the palace.
The temple was one of almost 50 that once lined the canal route from the western edge of the Imperial City walls (at Xīzhímén) to the Summer Palace. Now it is pretty much the only one that remains (Wǔtǎ Temple being another notable survivor). The temple fell into disrepair after the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1912, with the Wànshòu Hall burning down. Things went from bad to worse, and during the Cultural Revolution the temple served as an army barracks.
There’s an interesting introduction to the history of the temple in the small hall (once the temple’s Drum Tower), immediately to your left as you enter the complex. And as you walk through the Hall of the Deva Kings, which leads to the second courtyard, notice the illustration on your right that shows all the temples that once lined the canal. The names are in Chinese only, but see if you can spot the temple you’re in (万寿寺) as well as neighbouring Yánqìng Temple (延庆寺; Yánqìng Sì), nearby Dragon King Temple (龙王庙; Lóngwáng Sì) and the magnificent Wǔtǎ Temple (marked on the map with its former name, 真觉寺), all of which still stand, at least in part.
The highlight of a visit here, though, is to view the prized collection of bronze Buddhist statuary in the Buddhist Art Exhibition of Ming & Qing Dynasties, housed in two small halls on either side of the second courtyard. The displays guide you through the Buddhist pantheon with statues of Sakyamuni, Manjusri, Amitabha, Guanyin (in bronze and déhuà, or white-glazed porcelain) and exotic tantric pieces. Also look out for the kapala bowl made from a human skull, dorje and purbhas (Tibetan ritual daggers). Further halls contain museum exhibitions devoted to Ming and Qing porcelain and jade.
Also worth checking out are the Buddhist stone and clay sculptures housed in the large unnamed central hall at the back of the second courtyard. There are four magnificent central pieces, plus a dozen or so arhats (Buddhist disciples) lining the flanks. The pavilion at the rear of the whole complex once housed a 5m-high gold-lacquered brass statue that's now long gone; in its place is a miniature Ming dynasty pagoda alloyed from gold, silver, zinc and lead.
Note that on Wednesdays the first 200 visitors get in for free.